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Montana Legislature
Montana lawmakers mill around the House floor during a brief lull on April 28, the last day of the 2011 session.

HELENA — It took all day and part of the night Thursday, but the Montana Legislature finally closed out the 2011 session, methodically approving an overhaul of Montana’s medical marijuana law and the final pieces of a budget package that cut government spending by 6 percent.

The state Senate brought down the final curtain at 9:08 p.m., adjourning not long after giving its final approval to the session’s major budget measure, House Bill 2, on a 27-23 vote.

House members had adjourned a half-hour earlier, as House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said majority Republicans achieved what they came to town to accomplish: Pass a state budget that cut government spending, push through bills to boost natural-resource development and reform the medical marijuana law.

“We didn’t do it for money, we didn’t do it for power, we didn’t do it for the accolades,” he said. “The fact is that every single representative in this chamber deeply loves the state of Montana.”

Republicans controlled a 68-32 majority in the House and a 28-22 edge in the Senate, giving the party control of the Legislature for the first time since 2004.

Yet they had to square off against a Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, who vetoed scores of bills and forced Republicans to negotiate slightly higher spending in the budget before he would agree to sign it.

Thursday night, Schweitzer said he’s pleased that Montana remains one of the few states with a large balance in its treasury — more than $300 million. But he also criticized Republicans for wasting time on “frivolous and unconstitutional legislation.”

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, also laid into Republicans in her final speech moments before adjournment, saying future legislators will need to “fix a lot of things that we broke in this session.”

“This has been a very bitter, difficult session for Democrats,” she said on the Senate floor. “We came here with high hopes that we would be able to work together to do things for the people of Montana.”

The final budget clocked in at about $3.65 billion for the next two years, 6 percent lower than state government spending in the current two-year budget period that ends June 30.

The budget slightly reduces state spending for public schools this year and then increases it next year. The state University System will operate with less state cash than it had the past two years.

Human service programs also endured spending reductions, although Schweitzer’s negotiations added back $120 million in state and federal money for health care, anti-tobacco, home-heating and food assistance programs, among others.

The Legislature rejected a negotiated pay raise for state employees and a $100 million bonding bill to finance state construction projects at university campuses and other locations across the state.

But dollars and cents weren’t the central theme of every issue before the Legislature, which also dealt with medical marijuana, environmental regulations and social issues.

The House and Senate worked into the evening Thursday to craft a medical marijuana law that cracks down on the sale and distribution of the drug, and lawmakers earlier passed bills designed to make it easier for oil, mining, coal and other natural-resource development across the state.

Social issues, such as attempts to make it harder to obtain an abortion in Montana and to block federal health care reform, dominated the earlier days of the session, but many of those efforts failed or were vetoed.

On the final day, the House and Senate met in fits and starts over 13 hours, as legislators picked their way through a series of votes and conference committees that wrapped up the final bills needed to pass the budget and take care of other key issues, such as medical marijuana.

By early evening, it was only a matter of waiting for the final votes on a handful of bills.

As the Senate prepared to adjourn, Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said that while lawmakers didn’t agree “eye to eye” on many issues, they all shared the same goal of making Montana a better place to live.

“I think we all share the same desire to do the best for the people of Montana, in terms of setting a path for the future that is prudent, patient and thoughtful,” he said. “I think we’ve done a job that we can be proud of, preserve this state as a place ... with a lot of opportunity.”